The Green Papers Commentary

A response to what is the political equivalent of a
day camp food fight over raising the debt ceiling

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

Every once in a while, I receive an e-mail at in which is asked the question "Are you are conservative or a liberal?"

My standard "pat" answer is that I am not a liberal because I refuse to confuse Condonation with Tolerance, neither am I a conservative because I refuse to confuse Tolerance with Condonation (this being the result of my own- and long- observation and experience that many- perhaps even most, but certainly not all- liberals I happen to know personally tend to take the tack that, if one thinks it's okay for someone else to do something [even if- actually, especially if- it is something one does not wish to at all do], one should not judge its merits while many- perhaps even most but, again, certainly not all- conservatives I might know personally tend to argue that, if one thinks doing something is okay, one is- thereby- also aiding and abetting it, even where one finds that something personally reprehensible where not also offensive... as for myself, I find either such stance altogether silly and, thus, I have no problem whatsoever in saying "Yes, you're perfectly free to do that [after all, this is America]-- but, if you do, you're a damn fool!")

Having said the above, I must say that nothing makes me gladder to be neither a liberal nor a conservative (however doctrinaire or not) than to see the abject irresponsibility, on both sides of the aisle in Congress, as regards the potential failure to raise the national debt limit (known colloquially as "the debt ceiling") come the point when national debt exceeds said "ceiling" which, by all accounts, will take place come Tuesday 2 August 2011 (the same day as the Mississippi State Primaries, by the way).

Much has been made of a hitherto rather obscure provision in the Federal Constitution... specifically: the first portion of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment to same which reads (relevantly) The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by Law... shall not be questioned.

In the only major decision (at least, so far! [;-)]) of the United States Supreme Court as directly regards the above-quoted constitutional provision- that in the case of Perry v. United States (294 U.S. 330 [1935])- Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, delivering the Opinion of the Court, stated:

There is a clear distinction between the power of the Congress to control or interdict the contracts of private parties when they interfere with the exercise of its constitutional authority, and the power of the Congress to repudiate the substance of its own agreements when it has borrowed money under the authority which the Constitution confers... By virtue of the power to borrow money "on the credit of the United States" [NOTE: this from clause 2 of Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution REB-A], the Congress is authorized to pledge that credit as an assurance of payment as stipulated,- as the highest assurance the Government can give, its plighted faith. To say that the Congress may withdraw or ignore that pledge is to assume that the Constitution contemplates a vain promise, a pledge having no other sanction than the pleasure and convenience of the pledgor. This Court has given no sanction to such a conception of the obligations of our Government...

We regard [Section 4 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution] as confirmatory of a fundamental principle which applies as well to the government bonds in question, and to others duly authorized by the Congress, as to those issued before the Amendment was adopted. Nor can we perceive any reason for not considering the expression "the validity of the public debt" as embracing whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations.

Based on what I just quoted from the Perry decision, it seems rather obvious that- while the position of many, if not most, liberal Democrats that a debt limit is unconstitutional per se is purest nonsense (after all, the power of Congress "to borrow money" implies- as it surely does for the proverbial 'person on the street'- the inherent authority to not borrow money [an authority that can be efficiently exercised by stating 'no borrowing above a specific amount')- the concomitant position of many, if not most conservative, Republicans that a debt limit can be enforced even where it might impair the ability of the Federal Government to pay off debt already accrued (the very phrase, in Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, "authorized by Law" clearly implying "public debt" already so authorized) is equally nonsensical!

Yet, here we have not just a few Republican members of both houses of Congress pushing strongly for just such an interpretation (and, yes, I am picking on conservative Republicans herein, for those among this group taking the aforementioned reprehensible position [even where, at least originally, it was done as something of a "bargaining chip" to force spending and/or tax cuts] are the very ones most directly driving this crisis... I hear comparatively few liberal Democrats looking forward with more than a little glee at a possible U.S. Default; rather, it is conservative politicians, pundits and financial analysts who scream "Bring it on!" or some such whenever U.S. Default is discussed on either television or radio of late [doubtless, these are the same who would be screaming "Wheeeeeeee!" out the windows of an SUV speeding headlong towards the edge of a cliff!-- of course, I'd like to see just how many of these will have failed to at least try to jump out of said SUV as said cliff edge looms ever closer!])

To these, I will only respond with the following and hope (however vainly such a hope might, in fact, be) that they might yet heed the included warning:

In a Dissenting Opinion (the dissent itself regarded the technical finding inherent in having decided the case: the dissenters, in fact, generally agreed with Chief Justice Hughes' analysis of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment as quoted earlier in this piece [they mainly disagreed with the manner in which he happened to apply it to the instant case]) in the aforementioned Perry case, Justice James McReynolds (joined by Justices Pierce Butler, George Sutherland and Willis Van Devanter... and note well, gentle reader, the very names of the Federal Supreme Court Justices from whom I am quoting re: Perry v. United States-- Hughes, McReynolds, Butler, Sutherland, Van Devanter--- the five Justices who, at around the very same time Perry was being decided, were the core of those striking down the earliest New Deal legislation [this all before FDR's infamous Court-packing Plan and the somewhat related "Switch in Time that saved the Nine"]... not a one of them exactly fans of Socialism- or, for that matter, even mere liberal Progressivism!) wrote the following (which I will herein boldface to make sure it gains necessary attention by all):

Loss of reputation for honorable dealing will bring us unending humiliation; the impending legal and moral chaos is appalling.

But this is precisely the very risk should there be a failure to raise the debt ceiling through which the United States of America would, thereby, no longer be able to meet its obligations as a debtor (a situation which would merely be the result of, again, a most irresponsible inaction!)

'Tis true that no one really knows what will happen (*I* certainly don't-- but I'm strangely comforted by the evidence that no one else- no matter how expert in matters economic, or not- does) should the United States actually default (though my assumption is that the reaction is far more likely to be negative, rather than positive, within the financial sector of the economy, globally as well as domestically... what is most unknown, however, is how negative and, more to the point, for how long?)... then again, perhaps the likely damage to that SUV heading for the cliff's edge- as well as potential injury to its occupants- won't be so bad after all...

I still don't think it's a very good idea to drive an SUV off of a cliff, though!


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